Dabbling in digital storytelling at drabbl.es

drabbl.esCanberra writer and entrepreneur Ellen Harvey has launched a new global platform for writers who can cope with word limits. The drabbl.es website, which is live but in alpha testing, invites visitors to create 100 word stories in one of dozens of subject areas, from journalism to crime and chick lit to biography. It’s an addictive format, and one that will appeal to writers of all genres and experience levels. Ellen took time out from her busy schedule to answer some questions about drabbling and literary start-up life for Boomerang Books. 

How and when did you come up with the idea for drabbl.es? 

The idea for drabbl.es came about as I was thinking of a way to write, collect, share and get others to do the same with 100 word stories. My writing group at the time loved the idea and I would give them ‘homework’ tasks to write 100 words around a certain theme. I wanted to read their drabbles, and they wanted to read other people’s drabbles too. Drabbles have been around for a while, the term originating from Monty Python, and are quite popular on online blogging platforms such as Livejournal. At the end of 2011, my husband, Lachlan Blackhall, and I were having a conversation about how to make this 100-word story-sharing website a reality. It was then that drabbl.es really started to take form, including many features and improvements that we can’t wait to implement on the website in future versions.

How long have you yourself been writing drabbles?

I have been writing drabbles since I was 14 and sharing them with friends via email and online blogging.

What’s your day job? 

My day job is split into three segments really: I’m a writer working on my first manuscript. I also started a company with my sister this year called BnE Media (www.bnemedia.com) where we create animated storybook apps for children. And of course, I work on drabbl.es.

And your dream job?

This is pretty much the dream. I am able to travel while working, I am able to write full-time, and I am able to work on interesting projects.

How many of you are involved in the project and what are the key roles?

As mentioned earlier, my husband is a key member of this project. He works with many start-up companies and is the ideal partner to have for this website. Plus, it’s great fun to be working on something with Lachlan. David Elliot and his team at Agile Digital are amazing–they worked tirelessly to make sure we had demos for workshops and a working version to begin this first trial in October.

How long has it taken to get the site up and running?

The idea was developed into a working website early in the year, and we were able to secure our developers (Agile Digital) in April. In six months, we have been able to start our first trial.

Now that drabbl.es is live, how much work is involved in running and promoting the site?

It’s actually a lot more work than I thought. Running a website, especially one in the early stages, means that I read 95% of all the drabbles. Drabbles are then randomly picked to be ‘promoted’ on social media, as well as advertising our challenges on social media so users know there are new ones. Running a trial, in particular, means I sort through feedback results and am constantly updating the development strategy for the next version. It definitely keeps me busy – but I love it all the same. It’s a new experience that I wouldn’t get anywhere else.

When do you anticipate leaving alpha stage and launching proper?

We plan to have the alpha trial running until the end of January (although we may continue into February). The site will still be live after that, but behind the scenes we’ll start working on the beta version. We’ll then release the next version and collect feedback. I love the idea of an evolving website that is exactly what its users want. After the beta trial and redevelopment, I think we’ll launch the proper version.

Will there be iOS and Android apps for drabbl.es?

I certainly hope so! To me, drabbling is definitely something that can be done on the run. You can be at a concert and write about the song you just heard; you can be watching the New Year’s Eve fireworks and describe the atmosphere; you can take a picture and explain what it means to you right then and there while still being in the moment.

Why should people post to drabbl.es rather than Facebook or Twitter or their own Tumblr/blog?

Drabbl.es allows people to tell stories. That is our aim. We want to read about a moment in someone’s life and feel as if we experienced it with them. Drabbl.es is about connections. Facebook and Twitter statuses have developed to the point where they are often used to talk about a very specific moment, but once the moment is over, the update or tweet is often no longer relevant. We want drabbles to have longevity and to mean something a week, a month, a year, a decade after it’s published. Tumblrs and blogs allow users to write as much as they want–we want to encourage creativity by having the word restriction.

Might we see drabbl.es anthologies in ebook form in the future?

It is definitely something that we’ve thought about. Possibly as a way to deliver drabbles daily, weekly or monthly to users interested in particular genres or users. Almost like a newsletter, but hopefully delivered straight to your eReader. That being said, we’ve also thought about users able to export their drabbles straight to ePub/mobi and upload to the various stores themselves. It’s something we’ve thought about, but still a little while off from implementing.

How will you deal with copyright issues ie does the writer retain copyright and what if you were to publish a book, would you have to ask for permission?

Writers always retain copyright. As a writer myself, this is something I feel very strongly about. When they post on the website, the work is always theirs. If we were to publish a book, we would ask the users for permission.

What about moderating the drabbles to ensure nothing defamatory or racist etc is posted, is that a big job? 

Currently, our users are wonderful and don’t make it a very big job. I imagine it may turn into one, though. Our website is only as good as the users on it, so I hope that our users will alert us to anything they think we should check out, in addition to our own moderation.

What’s the end goal and how will you make money/pay for the site?

Ideally, and it’s a big dream, I’d love drabbl.es to be on the Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook stage–something people do for fun, but is totally addictive. Regarding making money, we believe the site can make money in two ways. Firstly, sponsored challenges are a logical step. The challenges are already part of drabbl.es functionality and with our view that drabbl.es can be written about events and experiences, then having drabbl.es host challenges for other companies seems reasonable and something the drabbl.es community would do because they are already using the challenges section of the website. The second way is by creating levels of paid users. There will always be a user type that is free and without advertising, but if they want more functionality, such as linking drabbles together or adding more than one picture to a drabble for example, they would need to pay for their account.

How did you come up with the extensive list of drabbl.es subjects? Can contributors suggest more?

I searched for writing genres on Google and came up with a multitude of sites that declared they had the best list of writing genres. I ended up just picking the one I like the best and started with that. The list is a work in progress and I would love for users to suggest more.

What other online forums exist for posting drabbles ie what’s your competition?

A wave of citizen journalism sites have cropped up in the last year and I feel that this is probably our major competition. They all allow their users to add pictures, follow other users, get email updates, comment and socialise on the websites. What’s more, they all promote that their site is about storytelling. Despite this, I know that our concept and website is strong because our 100 word restriction on the stories is a challenge (and an addictive one at that) which only enhances and promotes creativity.